Interview with Sebastian Groh, Managing Director and Founder, SOLshare

Interview with Sebastian Groh, Managing Director and Founder, SOLshare

Solshare’s Innovative Solution for Energy Access Through Nano Grids

A Bangladesh based firm that has made it to the Global Cleantech 100 in 2018. That’s SOLshare, the nano grid firm. The company was formed in 2013, when Dr Sebastian Groh pitched the idea of SOLshare as one of the early outcomes of his PhD thesis investigating the role of energy in development processes to a mock jury at Stanford within their Ignite program. The jury challenged his lack of real field experience on the ground in Bangladesh. This was when he decided to make the move and turn the theoretical concept of ‘swarm electrification into reality’. 2018 was very special for the firm –awarded the best energy start-up in the world through the Free Electrons Program – an accelerator consisting of ten giant global utilities. The startup also joined the ranks of the likes of Google, Dropbox and Spotify as World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers. The recognition helped SOLshare to raise its Series A funding round of US$1.66M from Silicon Valley-based innogy New Ventures LLC (the venture capital investment arm of the German utility firm innogy SE), Portuguese utility firm EDP, both from Free Electrons,and also Singapore-based IIX Growth Fund At the heart of SOLshare is the SOL Boxes, which connect everyone in the nano grid to each other. Riding on the high penetration of Solar Home Systems in Bangladesh, these SOL boxes allow owners of SHS to sell or even buy surplus energy from other members on the network. An interview with the firm’s Managing Director and Founder, Sebastian Groh, by Group Editor, Prasanna Singh. Here’re the excerpts from that exclusive interview published in the Saur Energy International Magazine’s May 2019 edition:

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced when you set up in Bangladesh? How will you scale it from here?

Sebastian Groh Managing Director and Founder at SOLshare

Sebastian Groh, Managing Director and Founder | SOLshare

We haven’t really scaled up as of yet. Mastering how to move electrons between houses in the most efficient way where all stakeholders involved benefit is an incredibly complex task. This is true in terms of technology, socio-economics and policy! But once we have figured it out, we will not only have left our dent in the fight against energy poverty in South Asia, but also shown to the rest of the world what the energy utility of the future looks like. This is what I find truly amazing, the Global South will lead the way!

In terms of prevailing challenges, technology adoption in this enduser segment is difficult. Citizens in rural areas of Bangladesh and similar countries are usually not familiar with smart-grid technology, this combined with a connectivity good, takes a lot of stamina of going out there again and again, even though many (all) people might tell you, this will not work here, no chance! The lack of solid business rules in the country and excessive bureaucracy add a significant transaction and coordination cost for almost everything

Q. What is the current price of the SOLbox, Have purchases usually been financed or purchased outright?

SOLshare operates in a B2B model and SOLshare partner organizations including IDCOL, Grameen Shakti, Pacific solar, UBOMUS, etc. has installed 4.5M SHSs in the rural areas of Bangladesh including more than 6000 field staffs. Taking leverage of their existing market SOLshare installed more than 20 smart solar peer-to-peergrids so far with the POs in the rural off-grid chor areas(river islands) of Bangladesh.

The current price to SOLbox is Tk 2000 (Rs1660)with a fixed connection fee of Tk 500(Rs 415) plus a monthly charge up to Tk 25 (Rs21 pprox.). Our end-users can either pay the full price of SOLbox which is Tk 2000 right away or they can also pay for the amount in few monthly installments.

Q. What is the total consumption of an average consumer on the SOLshare grid? Total consumption and members on a typical nano grid?

The average household/microbusiness consumes between 70-80,000Wh per year. Each of SOLshare’s microgrids consist of 15-30 connected households/microbusinesses. The average household size is usually around 5 members sometimes more. SOLshare’s largest microgrid is in Kurmapunji, a remote location in Sylhet where 40 households are connected. The annual consumption of a microgrid usually varies between 1200kWh – 2400kWh depending on the grid size and number of beneficiaries within the grid which varies between 75-150 people. Consumption at Kurmapunji averages an annual 3600kWh.

Q. How does SOLshare earn revenues, besides sale of SOLBox

You can imagine SOLshare being the AirBnB of the offgrid world. Due to technical design constraints the 5M SHS out there are in fact an underutilized asset that we make available to the people suffering from energy poverty. Our sharing economy approach allows SHS owners and non-owners (those who couldn’t afford a system to date) to share electricity. For the individual user this means exponentially more degrees of freedom. We equip our users with an electricity buying guarantee, a feeling similar to that people have in the developed world where electricity is simply always available. Our customers have all their life been constrained by either not having access to electricity at all, a situation shared by 1 billion people around the globe, or to be constrained by their SHS capacity. A key advantage of the system also is that now people can have more money, as they are able to sell their excess electricity or decide to invest in additional PV to become a smart solar entrepreneur. SOLshare here acts as a platform provider charging a transaction fee for every Wh traded in our SOLgrids. What makes the system seamless is that the entire settlement is done via a mobile money platform that is integrated into ours.

Q. With IOT sensors making a lot more data capture possible, how do you see it impacting your own work?

The heart of SOLshare’s work is completely dependent upon a properly functioning IOT which consists of our SOLboxes, the main point of interconnection within our peer to peer solar microgrids; our Wi-Fi Towers, set up at every grid to send the data from the SOLboxes to our front end; our data team where all the data is received, processed and analyzed. The data we receive is invaluable in assessing and improving the functioning of our SOLboxes and enhancing user experience. IOT sensors would have several positive impacts on our work. Firstly, it would allow us to capture a wider range of data in real time, preventing current issues of data gaps and time lags. The data team would be able to improve remote diagnostics, prevent issues and address errors immediately. Secondly, SOLshare would be better equipped to manage the lifecycle of its equipment, mainly the SOLbox. Lastly this would allow for intelligence reporting and actual forecasting for business and technical analytics. Overall SOLshare would be able to provide its beneficiaries with a better product and greater user experience.

Q. Has SOLshare moved beyond Bangladesh yet? Which countries are next in line? What is the model you plan to follow, to expand into newer markets?

SOLshare is going to install more than 100 grids within the next year in collaboration with Grameen Shakti after winning the UNDESA, Powering The Future We Want Award. This means more than 3,000 SOLboxes will be installed in different parts of Bangladesh. Furthermore, SOLshare has already started piloting in Assam, India this year with CYGNI as our partner organization. The B2B model suits best for us to enter in a new market and grab the opportunities of the existing markets. SOLshare believes that the solar peer-to-peer grids in Bangladesh can be the future of utilities globally. SOLshare is committed to a new energy world fueled by the 5 D’s:Decentralization, Decarbonization,Digitization, Democratization & Disruption.

Q. What are your biggest learnings from your journey so far? Do you feel enough is being done worldwide, to fight climate change, or allow deprived people to get access to a better life sustainably?

Enough? We haven’t even started! In India subsidies to oil, gas and coal are still more than triple the value of subsidies to renewable energy and electric vehicles in 2017, according to a fact sheet by Power For All! I agree with Greta Thunberg, we live in a strange world. Where politicians say it’s too expensive to save the world, while spending trillions of euros subsidizing fossil fuels. Where in the name of international development, energy access market mechanisms are being destroyed and nobody seems to care.

Yet, I think to some extent you have to find the balance of going against the mainstream but still being able to work together with it, otherwise things can get very, very difficult. You need to be 100% passionate and serious about this, otherwise you’ll get lost on the way, you’ll encounter numerous frustrations which you’ll need to digest. I recommend having a team with complimentary personalities in order to be able to stick through.

Q. How big is your current organisation size?

SOLshare consists of a highly motivated and experienced team of 50+ people. The team’s experience includes engineering, energy, big data, design, business management, solar, and mechanical engineering. SOLshare staff is driven by our core values: performance with integrity, knowledge and innovation, passion for work, gratitude and empathy.

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Prasanna Singh

Prasanna has been a media professional for over 20 years. He is the Group Editor of Saur Energy International